Year enders 2019: Joe Darlington

A door closes on one year and opens on another. Here at the Manchester Review of Books, December is a time for looking back over what has gone, perhaps with a wistful eye (or perhaps with a sneer, or a look of profound regret), and offering some conclusions on what books the year has brought us.

Reading, it should be remembered, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I tend to curl up at Christmas time with a massive Victorian novel and spend some time enjoying a story well told. It’s a simple pleasure. It’s also one that seems increasingly difficult to enjoy, the more books you read.

Books are indeed habit-forming. I’ve been through three “to read” piles this year and rather than spend my money on presents for friends and family, I’m ashamed to say that a fourth has just been ordered.

I suspect this story will be told at some future bibliophile support group as an example of a “low moment”.

Yet, in spite of all this reading, I’m not sure if this year has really brought all I would have wished. I have read far less contemporary fiction. I can’t say I’ve felt this as a profound loss, but I do feel guilty for letting new work pass me by.

Instead, I’ve mostly been filling in gaps in my reading. I’ve done a lot of stumbling onto things too. With that in mind, my usual TOP 5 is more of a “here are five books”. Nevertheless, if it provokes your curiosity then perhaps I’ve done my job.

Number One: The Bible

Yes, that’s right. Why are you reading a top 5 books list when you should be praising Jesus? …is the sort of thing that someone might say who hasn’t read this thing. Or at least hasn’t read it objectively.

I’ve dipped in to the Bible before. Genesis and Revelations mostly, with the Sermon on the Mount too if I’m feeling less apocalyptic. 2019 has been the year of reading it cover-to-cover, however, and I can confirm that it’s a very different experience when read that way.

I discovered sections that are well worth reading that I, in my secularism, had never heard of before. Ecclesiastes is pure poetry. Lamentations too. Amos and Ezekiel are invigorating in their Old Testament anger, turbulent and vital. Jonah is wonderfully mystical.

But it’s not simply a sum of its parts. When they collected these separate books, all from different times and places, and brought them into one volume, they introduced a narrative arc that, frankly, I’m very surprised not to have heard about before.

This monster of a text is not just the story of man coming to know God, but of God coming to know man. God is a character. He’s like the angry misfit who finds redemption through love. It was a redemption arc I wasn’t prepared for when I started.

Obviously 2,000 pages of tiny script, written in C17th English (go King James or go home, I say), is going to be a difficult sell, but I for one found this to be one of my most rewarding reads all year.

Number Two: Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

From the sublime to the ridiculous; in the same year that I tasked myself with reading the entire Bible, I also set myself a challenge to fill in all the gaps in my sci-fi knowledge. I set about reading everything from Stapledon to Asimov, through McCaffrey to Valente, and my God there are a lot of stinkers.

Some of the best contemporary sf I found was Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy (the final instalment came out in October) and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (ended 2015). Both combine action with ideas; something good sci-fi can do better than any other genre, although it often refuses to.

Jim Clarke’s book came out just as I was in the middle of my binge. I have reviewed it elsewhere in the MRB, but over time I have come to appreciate how his particular way of looking at the genre has informed my own understanding.

Sci-fi is, after all, obsessed with science. However, as Clarke points out, what it often tells us most about is the non-scientific presumptions that underlie modernity. Priests often appear in sci-fi as bearers of the old ways. By contrast, they show us what is new in the thinking of spacemen and scientists.

Both Thompson and Scalzi’s books contain a lot of presumptions, not about how the future will be, but about what human beings are like. I like them in spite of this, and can do so thanks to a Clarkean reading of the subject matter. 

Number Three: Laura Scott, So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

I have branched out a little with my poetry reading this year, but when I think about what I really enjoyed I always find myself dragged back to Carcanet. Rachel Mann’s A Kingdom of Love (Carcanet, 2019) was a close call for the poetry book slot but I figured putting three Christian books in a top 5 will send an unintended theological message.

Close also were non-Carcanet titles from the Manchester poetry scene. Richard Barrett’s The Face Book and Steve Hanson’s Sing were two breakthrough collections.

As a book recommendation though, I felt I should go for something intended for the page. Laura Scott’s poems carry huge weight despite a concision verging on the sparse. They demonstrate the importance of poetry as a means of purifying our language, ultimately clarifying our thought.

All poetry should aspire to the condition of this collection. An art for our times.

Number Four: John Stubbs, The Reluctant Rebel (Penguin, 2019)

The longest book I’ve read this year is John Stubbs’ excellent biography of the Dangerous Dean, Jonathan Swift. There is so much to the satirist that is only comprehensible from deep within the historical context of his works that I feel like I’ve discovered this great writer all over again.

Stubbs is a historian of the seventeenth century who turns his hand in this book to the early eighteenth. As such, we get a sense of a much longer history lying behind the squabbles of Whig and Tory, High Church and Low.

Memories of the civil war frame the century’s squabbles, turning seemingly minor disagreements over trade tariffs and Church ceremony riven with terrible foreboding and dread. Every Tory looked to a Whig like a secret Catholic Jacobite, while every Whig looked to the Tories like a Dissenter, an anarchist, and a madman.

Getting lost in the foreign country of the past is refreshing. Far better to understand the past as it was than attempt to explain it through what we think the present is. Stubbs gives us no comparisons to “what we think today”. It’s an approach I find respects my intelligence as a reader, and I appreciate him for it.

Number Five: Stephen Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (Macmillan, 2019).

There were a lot of books that I had in mind for my fifth slot as I jotted my notes for the article this morning. It was only after I found myself paraphrasing this book in conversation, yet again, over coffee that I realised the impact it had on me.

I have been quoting facts from this book relentlessly ever since I first read it a couple of months ago. If that’s not the mark of a great popular science book, I don’t know what is.

The book is written as part-autobiography, part-factual book. Normally I’m not a fan of these “personal journey” non-fiction books, but in the case of Brusatte’s book the narrative mode is a perfect fit with the content.

The Rise and Fall ultimately aims to bring us, the readers, up to date in our knowledge of dinosaurs. As such, the narrative form allows his own journey to reflect the breakthroughs in our scientific thinking. A lot has changed since the 1960s when a young Brusatte first took interest in the thunder lizards.

Having read a lot of 1970s and 1980s books on dinosaurs when I was a child, I found it easy to jump on board at exactly the point I’d leapt off at the age of thirteen. I was glad to learn that the asteroid theory (the one I liked as a kid), has indeed been proven true.

I was less keen to learn about dinosaur feathers. By the end of the book, however, I’d been won over. One of the best parts of the book is Brusatte’s slow revealing of information that ultimately demonstrates how a million years of dinosaur evolution led them into becoming birds.

More than that, all the body parts that make birds birds (special lungs, a wishbone, wings, feathers, beaks) are shown to have evolved for purposes entirely unrelated to flight. It’s an amazing lesson in evolution and the strange ways that creatures come about.

Overall, I feel that 2019 has been an interesting year, but not one marked by many era-defining changes. Experimental novels like Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2019), Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (& Other Stories, 2019) and Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis (Parthian, 2019) provided me with some inspiration. Equus Press has shown the power of small presses with great books like D. Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions and Louis Armand’s Glasshouse. The success of Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber, 2019) has shown that unconventional novels can do well, even if I found the book itself a bit dull (its paragraphs were too big and it plagiarised a scene from Apocalypse Now which annoyed me). Overall, however, I think this year’s great reads have come from outside of the literary novel.

And so one decade draws to a close. Another begins. May our “to read” lists be tempting, yet short, and may the written word live on despite its ever-receding reach.

– Joe Darlington

Year enders 2019: Steve Hanson

What have I read this year?

Highlights in terms of things I covered for Manchester Review of Books were Stuart Elden’s text on Canguilhem (Polity) Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter (Splice) Colin Herd’s click + collect (Boiler House Press) plus Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey’s Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism).

Macbeth, Macbeth was of special interest as I will have a book out next year that is part of a series which includes a reissued edition of that work. You might say I was checking out the competition, but it turns out they don’t have any competition. Well, certainly not from me.

Also peerless is Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran’s Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons). Book of the year for me, that, in terms of things I’ve reviewed.

I tackled a load of lit-crit I hadn’t read. I have crossed a lot of it already by studying semiotics and structural linguistics – and teaching semiotics in art schools. But I wanted to build on that base by reading academic literary criticism.

Barthes I’ve read – most of the books in English – but I haven’t read the Pleasure of the Text yet, I need to. I read more of Terry Eagleton’s key work, Criticism & Ideology (1976) The Function of Criticism (1984) and I started The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990). I need to try to finish that. I feel slightly guilty when I see it around.

I think I actually started those in 2018, time seems to bending the further down it I get…

I read The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode. Utterly brilliant. And delivered in lectures at an obscure Welsh college. That’s an incredible book, actually. I read The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Repetitive, patchy, quixotic, but a reactionary poke in the ribs. T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture is all over the place. Stuffy, so vague in places it verges on a spoof. I read a book on Thomas Mann by someone – I can’t find it now, but it was absolutely brilliant.* I’m reading Lukacs on Mann a chapter at a time. I can feel the Mann-binge coming on, in 2020. Magic Mountain, finally, I reckon.

I read a massive biography of Disraeli. By Robert Blake. I don’t know why I started it, but I can explain that I got a strong take on his whole era from it. I became less and less interested in Disraeli and increasingly interested in the politics of the late 18th early 19th century all over again. Plus Disraeli is interesting as a young Byron-obsessed dandy and less so as an old duffer. There were lots of side-trips into other books when I took myself through that one.

I read a lot of Burgess. I go to quite a few International Anthony Burgess Centre events and so I got through The Devil’s Mode, the first two Enderby books (great fun) Dead Man in Deptford (fantastic) and The End of the World News. IABC keep the man in mind, so their job is being very well done.

I read a pile of sci-fi. World of Tiers, which swerves from the great to the ridiculous, sometimes on the same page. Michael Moorcock’s Black Corridor, and I re-read his Rituals of Infinity, both are great. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which is kind of a collection and kind of not, but brilliant, which Bradbury was. I read White Light by Rudy Rucker, which is full-on Acid Scifi by a mathematician. Really astonishing stuff.

I read Atomised and Whatever by Houellebecq. I’ve been seeing curt dismissals of his work for a long time. The reality is much more complex. Atomised is a moralising utopian novel. It is right on-geist in that it reflects the sicking back up of the neoliberal era completely. In fact the new left and Houellebecq are on the same page, though I guess neither would admit that. They have very different answers to the crisis but the diagnosis is coming from the same historical place.

By reading him I’m trying to do justice to my own advocacy in my article about reading things that don’t already square with one’s own politics:

I have read a bunch of other things. An MIT book on computing, Benjamin on Brecht – some of that was fragmentary – a book on Kelvin Corcoran, and the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe.

I have started things and put them aside. The usual bad novels and trash-fi that’s too trashy even for me. I picked up a copy of Nicholas Rankin’s Faber on Ian Fleming’s 30 Commando at a book swap and was disgusted by the language. I managed to take it to a charity shop and not torch it outside in a barbecue tray. I nearly did. He explains the Lancashire Fusiliers ‘winning a load of VCs before breakfast’ in WW1, jolly-what-ho. My great grandfather and his mate – who I met as a boy – were Lancs Fusiliers in WW1. My great grandfather was killed and his mate told me to never join the army. Disillusioned with the world, he then pottered around on a bit of spare ground for the rest of his life. He was a lovely man. Rankin profits from Tory war porn made for village idiots.

Other ‘epic fails’ as the kids call them: I have this wager with my friend Nigel Armitage, he reads a Dickens each year to get through them all. I decided to take this on because it’s a great idea and I raised him a Shakespeare. I have failed the core Dickens challenge and excelled in the raised game. No Dickens. Two Shakespeare, King John, and I read all the sonnets.

The biggest challenge has been the one I’m still tackling: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I read Lot 49 and the Slow Learner collection in the 1990s and have finally strolled into the vast madhouse. This is no idle metaphor. You walk into Gravity’s Rainbow thinking you’ve been had.

I’m only just over halfway through. Gravity’s Rainbow is sprawling, messy, scattershot. It is ‘bonkers’, but it is very far from nonsense.

Happy reading folks and thanks for reading us.


* I have found the book now, it was Thomas Mann, The Ironic German by Erich Heller.

Sunrise in the Selfish City

Rania Mamoun – Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Nestled between Ethiopia and Egypt, Sudan doesn’t often make the international news. Even the best-informed reader would be forgiven for associating the country only with the ongoing civil war taking place among the warring tribes of its south.

Its capital, however, Khartoum, is divided less by its ethnic tensions than by class. Recently described by The Guardian as “the most selfish city in the world”, Khartoum is run by and for a small Arab elite. The multi-ethnic city they rule over is, by contrast, in a state of perpetual anarchy.

It is into these sweltering streets that Rania Mamoun plunges us in her short story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise.

Mamoun’s ten stories are short but pack a mighty punch. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, the book’s prose is concise. We are hit by rapid bursts of images, each of which evokes a clear spirit of place. Smells, reveries and dreams all sit alongside poverty, scrap iron and extremes of human deprivation.

Each story takes us to another corner of Khartoum. In my personal favourite, “Doors”, we are witness to the increasing frustration of an unemployed man whose clean shirt is slowly torn apart, catching on everything it can on his way to a job interview.

His frustrations are recognisable to anyone. We’ve all spilled coffee on our best shirt. That the man lives in a pre-fab shack without running water is secondary to his human frustration. Mamoun’s focus on universal experiences like this are what make her stories so readable, and help us to place ourselves in the shoes of the Sudanese people she depicts.

The shortness of the stories gives them the feel of prose poems. They are no longer than they need to be. The collection itself comes in at under 70 pages. Yet, despite their brevity, these stories carry a lot of weight.

The collection is structured in a loose arc. We open with a friendship between two office workers. One is Eritrean, although the speaker mistakes him for Ethiopian: the Sudanese, we are told, refer to citizens of both countries under the collective label “Assyrian”.

Our Sudanese protagonist reveals themselves to be a lover of all things Assyrian. He wears Assyrian clothes and frequents Assyrian cafes. His Eritrean colleague appreciates this and, after a trip to an Assyrian record shop, hints at the story of his emigration.

That Eritreans still flee to Khartoum, as Ethiopians did a generation ago during their droughts, shows us the relative prosperity and peace of the Sudanese capital city.

By the final story, however, we are exploring the darkest and dirtiest of the city’s slums. In “Stray Steps” the starving speaker travels the poverty-striken streets, trading sexual favours for food and other scraps.

She is relieved only by a friendly dog, in a moment of magical realism that, by pushing the boundaries of believability, ends the collection on an ambiguous note.

Mamoun’s collection is well worth checking out. Anyone interested in the contemporary short story will find in here a series of highly original narratives, each realised with masterful technique. For those interested in the Sudanese setting there is also much here to praise. Less of a tourist guide than a guided tour down the backstreets; you leave feeling you know something of the real Khartoum.

The sun is rising on this exciting writer whose works are finally making it into the English language. It shows no sign of setting any time soon.

– Joe Darlington